hy care about how someone listens to music? Well, on the purely geeky level I've always found these articles interesting in the same way I enjoy reading others' year-end lists or similar detritus, but I do think there's something else valuable about the exercise. If you're at all involved in thinking about music, whether by reading or writing or talking or what have you, you're intrinsically connected to other peoples' listening experiences. But I think we tend to assume these are fairly uniform, unless the subject is brought up. Maybe I like an album and you don't or vice versa not just because of our differing tastes but also due to our differing ways of listening to music. Occasionally looking at how someone engages with the stuff we all love gives you a window into how they might be different from yourself, or similar. Without further preamble...
The opportunity to do one of these came at an interesting point in my life: previously I was doing nothing but working part time for a University, but now I am holding that same job while going to grad school and working as a TA. Which means that the amount and way I listen to music is more different than it has been in some time. Usually Sunday would be the day of the week to sit around listening to whatever I want all afternoon, but instead I spent it entering data. When I get home I'm a little burned out and the dishes have piled up, so I put on the Rolling Stones' Rewind (1971-1984). Washing dishes is one of the few household chores I enjoy, mostly because I always listen to music while doing it, and this disc is one I randomly found in the used record store down the street from my apartment.
The only Rolling Stones I actually own is the nice reissue of Hot Rocks, and this nicely fills in some of their later songs that I like. I used to feel vaguely guilty at not appreciating the classics the way I do some younger bands, but I gave up on that a while ago. I like some old bands, I like some newer bands, and it's not (to my mind) particularly surprising or damning that the balance should tip towards the latter. I'm a little surprised at how many of the tracks here I recognize without having known what they're called, but when I sit down to get some school work done and listen to Animal Collective's Spirit They've Gone, Spirit They've Vanished I'm much more interested. So far the only Animal Collective that I've heard that's really grabbed me is Feels, but there are a few stunning moments (particularly “Alvin Row”).
The main thing I'm writing that night is a Seconds article on “Have to Explode” by the Mountain Goats, and so unsurprisingly for about two hours I listen to that song on a continuous loop. I often have to do this for Seconds and On Second Thoughts, and usually it winds up with me totally burning out on the song or album in question. Such is my love for “Have to Explode,” though, that I continue to listen to it for a while after I've submitted the article. As I've previously mentioned on Stylus it's a rare and precious thing for a song or album to be one that I want to listen to all the time, forever, and this one qualifies. That mostly carries me until I finally go to bed, far too early in the morning.
I wake up at 9 to finish revising a paper I'll be presenting this evening. I'm tempted to actually turn on music, but the fatigue-and-caffeine headache is too strong to contemplate any noise. “Have to Explode” runs through my head on a loop instead as I revise the paper, eventually find some breakfast, and leave the apartment. At the bus stop I have “Long Distance Call” by Phoenix in my head; I recently got their new album It's Never Been Like That from the student newspaper and it hasn't done much for me so far. Nearly everyone else is wearing headphones, but I never listen to music on my brief commute. I don't like sealing myself off from the world; I listen to music near-constantly when I'm somewhere for longer than ten minutes, so I don't feel the need to cram in an extra five minutes of listening while in transit.
My first stop is the gym: I could try using the stationary bike without music at some point, but without it I don't go as fast. This is the reason I got an iPod in the first place; it's hard to find albums that have a high enough energy level, and skipping through my exercise folder to get a quasi-random mix each time is so much better. Today I'm feeling a little under the weather so I don't take things too hard, allowing myself to listen to the lengthy and relatively mellow “Temptation” by New Order rather than skipping ahead to something faster and harder. That comes up later, with “First It Giveth” by Queens of the Stone Age (which feels like it was designed for exercising). By the time I end with “The Body Says No” I can definitely tell I've done some work.
Before my first class I print out my paper and practice presenting it. As I try to read slowly enough to reach 20 minutes (I talk too damn fast), catch typos, and re-print everything, what will wind up being my theme song for the day first pops into my head: Hot Chip's “Bad Luck.” I may have seen and loved them live, but they didn't play this and I hadn't listened to it in a while. I'm not sure what prompted it, but for the rest of the day I can hear Alexis Taylor drawling “who let the dogs out?” Or, if I'm angry or tense, him giving “fuck you you fucking fuck” a similarly narcotized reading. After a three-hour lecture on Nietzsche (the guy who said “Without music, life would be a mistake”), I scarf down a sandwich and make my way to the classroom for my Plato lecture. Another MA student goes first and gives a really good paper on Plato and Aristotle and I begin to worry even more, to the extent that Joe Goddard's refrain from “Bad Luck” (“Bet you thought you'd get away / Didn't ya, didn't ya?”) resounds mockingly in my head. But this is standard for me and presentations, and the actual paper goes quite well, the other students being engaged enough that I get to field questions on through the break we take after each presentation (yes, this is fun—if you're in the field).
Later, I catch the bus, getting off a couple of stops before my building and walk over to the polling station to vote in our municipal election. As it's a bit of trek I've got my iPod playing Phoenix. I only expect to hear the first run of songs, but I get to the school where I'm supposed to vote to find it closed. Some guys playing street hockey tell me it was moved to a church down the street and so I just keep going, wandering around in the heavy drizzle and getting home just as the album ends. I chose it to listen to Phoenix as I've wanted to since morning, and the only plus of tramping around in the cold wet is that I get a really good listen out of it. For the first time the whole thing makes sense to me, even the five minute instrumental “North,” which really should qualify as filler.
I get home to find that a message left on our phone by the Guelph Civic League telling us that voting was 8-10 was backwards; it was 10-8. I had class until 9:15. As I seethe and eat dinner, the Barenaked Ladies' “One Week” pops into my head unbidden. I can't say that song is exactly a favorite, but when some part of my cortex starts running through “Chickity China the Chinese chicken” you just have to hang your head and go with it. Luckily I've got a blurb to record for the Singles Jukebox Stycast and so one form of schlock is exchanged for another as I listen to the Alfee's “Innocent Love.”
At this point I should be working on one of my many other school responsibilities or at least do something productive for Stylus, but after spending so much time on the Plato paper I'm listless and spend literally hours listening to nothing and getting nothing done. Finally I go to do the dishes, grab my iPod again and without really thinking about it queue up The Goslings' Grandeur of Hair. This is another perfect choice; “Croatan” hits like an atom bomb as I'm still scrubbing cups and plates and I wind up listening to the whole thing far too loud on headphones before turning in. I can't decide if it's better than their astounding debut Between the Dead but it's certainly up there.
I've got another song in my head. For someone who listens to as much music as I do, a lot of time is spent listening to what my subconscious plays. This morning it's the extended refrain to the Red House Painters' astonishing “Make Like Paper.” I found a used copy of Songs for a Blue Guitar recently and spent days listening, but it's been weeks since I've even thought of it. I wake up, though, and there it is. The first thing to knock “Make Like Paper” out of my head is reading this week's Jukebox; I like “Christobel” (and Jonathan Bradley's blurb) enough that it takes over, and after a while it segues into a live version of Interpol's “Hands Away,” or at least the plangent guitar figure that starts the song.
It's scary how suggestible my brain is with music; on the BBC I see a headline about the dispute over “Whiter Shade of Pale” and I'm singing about sixteen vestal virgins for the next hour, until an overhead cell phone conversation at the bus stop brings to mind Robyn's “Bum Like You” from her fantastic 2005 album (drastically undervalued in my year-end list that year). When I'm not listening to music, this is how it goes; I walk around, and nearly everything triggers a change in my mental playlist. Mostly it's composed of things I'd want to hear anyway but the process is still a little unnerving.
At work I can take conscious control of what I'm hearing, but these days I can't listen to much music there. Originally at this job I listened to music quietly the whole time. Now I can listen on headphones only, and as soon as my students show up not even that. That means I've gone from listening to 6-8 albums fairly casually to only being able to hear 2-3, and those always with the increased focus that I find headphones bring. It makes me work more effectively during those few hours, but it's also exhausting. Since four days a week are spent like this, my overall music consumption is down and what I listen to is often dictated by necessity. I start with the Electric Six's Switzerland, which I'm reviewing for Stylus but still need a few more listens; It's much better than I expected. Afterwards I listen to COIL's live album ...and the ambulance died in his arms, which is a wonderful contrast from the directness and spite of Dick Valentine. I also manage to play the debut of Perth's My Majestic Star, an impressive one-man instrumental band that I'm also planning to review.
While heating up lunch something weird and not entirely pleasant happens. Phrases from two completely separate songs get trapped in my head in a weird symbiotic loop, so that I hear Jens Lekman singing “but we can call her Maria” leading into John Darnielle keening “moon yellow and bright” and vice versa. It's insistent enough that I can't even think through either fragment to identify the song until I break the loop by listening to something else. I always feel like something is misfiring in my head when this happens.
I have just enough time before the students get there to hear one more short album and I choose New Order's debut Movement. It's mostly reviled but I needed to hear it after mark k-punk told me that he “definitely [thinks] that sonically, Movement is superior to Closer.” I don't agree yet, but I do hear a much better record than I expected. I at least think “Senses” is the equal of much of their later work. When I stop listening to music almost immediately “Hands Away” pops into my head again. I finally know why—the guitar figure from Phoenix's “North” could be its friendlier brother, and something in my subconscious seized on that connection. The soundtrack for the rest of my night, due to being at work, is the Wrens' “Still Complaining” from their great Secaucus LP.
On my break I wander by Slacktivist and the associative chain grinds into overdrive again; he's writing about 1 Corinthians 13, and that passage always makes me think of the Mountain Goats' “Love Love Love.” After a while my mind wanders over to one of my favourite lines in the song, where Darnielle sings about Raskolnikov (I could listen to that man's phrasing all day), which brings to mind Dostoevsky, which leads me to the Go-Betweens' “Here Comes a City,” a song I love because of the way they spit out that name like a curse.
And the rest of the night? Spent catching up on TV and doing the dishes to the Electric Six album. Afterwards I finally finish the review of it and track down the video for “I Buy the Drugs”—how appropriate that it should be a sweaty, banal Girls Gone Wild type of affair, in which the only guy in the band who looks even vaguely out of place is Dick Valentine, having dropped his demonic accountant look for that of a nebbishy, over-eager fratboy. It is, naturally, awesome.
While checking email this morning I get a response from my dad about an alternate version of “Shelter from the Storm” I found and love, as well as an email back from James at the ever-valuable V/VM label, whom I began corresponding with when I found out that the Caretaker’s Theoretically Pure Anteriograde Amnesia was coming out on CD. Something he mentions leads to me spending most of my morning puttering around the V/VM site listening to MP3s from the Sick Love album and the like—great stuff, I’ll be sad to see them go. I need to clear some space on my credit card so I can order the damned thing soon.
The rest is spent mopping up leftovers from Neil Finn’s live 7 Worlds Collide album and Shatner’s Has Been; there are a few good tracks on each, and I give the ones I’ve decided to keep one last listen to make sure I want them before putting them in the directory I keep MP3s that need to be backed up before joining the main collection. CDs may be scattered around my room and apartment but on my Mac my music is properly organized, damn it.
Then it’s to the gym again; things are a little bit more hectic this time due to my iPod throwing up some really choice, urgent songs: Comeback Kid’s “Wake the Dead,” Idlewild’s “Stay the Same,” “Captain Bo Dignifies the Allegations with a Response” from Oneida’s fine Secret Wars album (that song is insane), and a closing run through Rival School’s massive “Used for Glue” that is, quite frankly, nuts. I feel thoroughly invigorated as well as fatigued when I’m done.
I’m actually in later than normal as today the department is having a series of presentations entitled “Philosophizing Music”—as it’s the closest thing we’re going to present to what my thesis will be on, I needed to go, and luckily my boss kindly offered to stay a little late and supervise until I make it over. The presentations are uniformly excellent: An interesting overview of Hegel’s zeitgeist as expressed through the music, philosophy and politics of the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, some compelling remarks on the difference (or non-difference) between ending and interrupting a song, and most thrillingly some explanation and demonstration of spectral music. I’ve never heard this stuff before, but the professor plays five minutes of a piece called “Eroding Memory” after noting that the composer says this stuff causes you to “drown in the vertigo of duration” (which makes a bit of sense when you hear it, trust me) and I’m enraptured. I arrange to swap CDs with the prof, and I think he needs to hear R. Luke DuBois’ Timelapse and Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, among others. At the end my advisor lectures for a bit on the Grateful Dead, in just as informative and entertaining a fashion as he lectures on everything. I could have gladly stayed for another couple of hours, but I’m already an hour later than the scheduled ending, although I did warn my boss that philosophy department functions always go into overtime.
Walking to work afterwards I feel excited and pumped up, thinking of what music I might give the spectral music prof and thinking about my thesis. The song that sticks with me for the rest of my shift, for no reason other than its perverse joie de vivre, is My Bloody Valentine’s immortal “You Made Me Realise.” I’ve never seen them live, of course, but my mind does stretch out the noise break in the middle in a rough approximation of what it might have been like.
It’s the birthday of my brother’s girlfriend tonight, so after work I head over to the bar to drink cheap pints of shitty beer and hang out. She has to leave early for her night shift but the rest of us stick around until the godawful cover band (called, I shit you not, Cameltoe) start murdering the classics and we bail. I haven’t had that much, but my tolerance has taken a nosedive this semester and I’m pretty loopy. The night ends with me trying to send a friend “Lost and Found” by Phoenix over MSN (until they point out it’s really late, which is a fair point) and poring intently over the lyrics from that album; I momentarily connect with the 10-year old me, who used to put a favorite record on my dad’s turntable and sit there with the sleevenotes, reading along. The only thing that distracts me from that is stumbling onto a random MySpace profile (not sure why I was there, I’m not on the site myself) with the Knife’s “Heartbeats,” clearly one of the finest songs ever written.
I awake with a headache, naturally, and so there’s no music in my life until I meet with my friend Aaron in an on-campus bar for lunch. I’ve spent the morning meeting with my advisor (I need to do more research, apparently) and another MA student to go over some papers, and the first music that actually penetrates my consciousness is a lovely cover of the Pixies’ “Hey” with female vocals. Mainly because, until the chorus, I can’t place why I know the song.
All day long I want to listen to It’s Never Been Like That, as I didn’t the night before. But I know when I like an album I actually have to prevent myself from listening to it as often as I want or I will burn myself out on it—I seem unable to stop myself—and so I’m glad it’s not on my iPod today. I do have time to listen at work briefly, though. First I relax into Leonard Cohen’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony. I have a public apology to make about this album. I used to be one of those Cohen fans who was content with the (actually fantastic) Essential two-disc compilation that came out in 2002. Then on the back of Mike Powell’s writing I obtained, loved, and bought Death of a Ladies’ Man (in that order). Fellow Stylusite Mallory O’Donnell was aghast that I, a Canadian, wasn’t more familiar with the man’s corpus, and thrust upon me New Skin for the Old Ceremony in particular. After my first couple of listens, I poo-poohed him. Mallory, buddy, I was wrong. You were right. You probably have a point about Songs of Love and Hate too. Thanks so much of setting me firmly on the path of buying all of his albums and wasting even more of my life, because what I needed at this point was more obsessive loves, not fewer. Really.
After that I give the new Peter, Bjorn & John a spin; it seems like most or all of the Stylus people who have heard it have gone varying degrees of bananas for it, and the first two songs bear them out nicely; although the fact that I’d already heard “Objects of My Affection” and “Young Folks” make me a biased audience. The rest seems good, but on first listen the kind of good it’s going to take a while to get. I used to love that sensation, back when I had more free time. These days it’s kind of frustrating.
After work I spend my evening again catching up on TV shows, then pop in Damien Jurado’s And Now That I’m In Your Shadow on a whim. I have an odd relationship with this album; I didn’t think much of it either way until I pulled an all-nighter while home for the holidays (Canadian Thanksgiving: Because we like to space things out, thanks) and wound up wandering an all-night grocery store looking for Bagel Chips with this on the headphones. “Hoquiam” in particular now pops into my head unbidden on a regular basis, and I identify with it and the album more than is strictly rational. It’s become one of my default listening choices, and yet… I have yet to feel the urge to go find more of Jurado’s stuff. I have no idea why, but it’s not the first time it’s happened. The feeling is only reinforced by the fact that the last couple of times I eventually moved on to other works they wound up being crap (see: Ego Bullys, Josh Rouse).
After that I really, really want to finally listen to Phoenix, but it’s getting late so I make do with a couple of random MP3s while I check email. This leads to me stumbling upon one of my favorite and most frustrating finds of the year, Australia’s Tamas Wells. I got my first songs from them via the Stypod, and loved them enough I found the band’s site and downloaded everything they had available. It’s all great. It’s absolutely the kind of music I seem to be spending more and more of my time listening to recently, quiet and beautiful and touching, and yet I don’t see any way to get their album. It seems exceedingly hard and expensive to get it if you’re not in Australia (unless I’m missing something) and when I emailed inquiring about the possibility of a review all I got back was an exceedingly polite disinterest (not so much “we don’t want you to do one” as “it’s nice of you to think of us”) that given the way most smaller bands are desperate for press was a little surprising. Listening to every song I have by the band doesn’t keep me up too far past my bedtime.
I have to get up especially early Fridays for the MA Seminar, easily my favorite class. Friday is the closest thing I have to a weekend most weeks this semester, and I carefully plan things so that I don't rely on getting any work done, because I won't. I hit the gym before going to class, and as it's unusually early I plan to take things slow; a song like Mates of State's “Fraud in the 80s” might usually be skipped over for being too slow, but right now it seems just the right speed. Midway through, though, my iPod hits upon the unutterably brilliant Crews Against Consumismo “extended” remix (3:53 versus 3:09) of Johnny Boy's “You Are the Generation That Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve.” Not only is this one of the finest songs in existence, it's also possibly my favorite song to exercise to, and when it's followed up in the random order with Primal Scream's Kevin Shields-assisted “Accelerator” the remnants of my restraint are gone.
Which means that when I hit the university's Grad Lounge with my fellow students after class I'm a bit sore, but some antojitos and a few pitchers of fine, locally made beer (Wellington: If you're ever in Ontario, check it out) help. We split up early and I make my way downtown to Daydream Nation, a recently established music store in downtown Guelph that is the first place in town I'm able to reliably get stuff like the Knife, Espers, Hot Chip, the Mountain Goats, and so on. My only regret is that I can't afford to spend more money there, as I'd like to see the place flourish. The owner had kindly ordered me the nice Rhino reissue of Elvis Costello and the Attraction's Armed Forces and I needed to pick it up; I almost gave in to temptation and finally got Isis' Panopticon but decided to wait until next time. I've never heard Isis, but everything I've read and heard about it from people who know me suggests I'd like it, and it's almost a luxury these days to buy something sound unheard and devote some serious time to getting into it.
When I get home I'm surprised to see after closer inspection that there's a track in the original album of Armed Forces (“Sunday's Best”) that's not on my old crappy CD copy. Which is kind of surprising, especially as in the liner notes they mention that “(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” didn't appear on the original UK issue, but don't say anything about “Sunday's Best.” I'm looking forward to hearing how different the album seems with that change, but also a little unnerved that I apparently had an incomplete copy.
As with Wednesday, we're celebrating the birthday of my brother's girlfriend, so I head out to the bar with the two of them for 8. After dinner and a steady succession of gin and tonics I make my excuses and head over to the Albion (a student bar since the days when my father attended Guelph) to meet up with my class. This week the full complement isn't out, but my friend Aaron from the student paper is going to show up, a rare treat. So we assemble, grab our table next to the jukebox, and get down to some heavy duty drinking and talking.
My strategy at the jukebox is usually to pick very long songs I like. Every dollar gets you four songs, and if you don't watch it you'll have six strangers' random tracks playing before you can get a word in edgewise. The only group I remember selecting is Sloan's “Before I Do” (eight minutes!), “All That Money Wants” by the Psychedelic Furs, Portishead's “Only You” and David Bowie's “Heroes,” a perennial for both length and quality. Normally I would have picked some longer tracks for the middle, but I was very intoxicated by this point. Drunk enough that when Aaron and I eventually stumble home, talking shit all the way, I'm not entirely sure I'll be up in time for what I've planned to do tomorrow.
My alarm goes off at 11 and Steve Adey's cover of “Shelter From the Storm” is running through my head, probably because I feel a bit tentative about existence this fine morning. Eventually in the shower it segues into the rough rock version I've recently become acquainted with from one of Dylan's old tours (see here), and I feel fairly human by the time we meet up with Aaron (who has been up since 9, as his hangover regime involves caffeine, time, videogames, and exercise) to go see Casino Royale. The movie is extremely impressive, although aside from Chris Cornell's surprisingly enjoyable theme song I don't notice the music much. We all leave agreeing Daniel Craig is our favorite Bond.
The rest of the afternoon is spent writing part of this up while listening to It's Never Been Like That (which now has a decent chance at my top twenty; even “North” makes sense to me now) on repeat; I feel like I should listen to something new, but I've been holding out all week and I can't resist. Eventually people head over to see the UFC fight (which winds up being absolutely worth the money, as the Canadian Georges St. Pierre absolutely dismantles Matt Hughes to take the Welterweight title), during which we're all talking and laughing too loud to hear any music, even if we'd been playing any. Eventually people drift off, I organize the empties to take back the next day, and after a couple of repeat plays of the Lemonheads' “If I Could Talk I'd Tell You” (I'm in kind of a weird mood) I try to go to sleep. Tomorrow I'll be getting up to go to work, write, and start the whole cycle over again.